St. Distaff\’s Day and Our Textile Ancestors

This week\’s blog post will appeal to those of you who are trivia and history buffs, but there is a genealogy connection. On January 6 I attended the St. Distaff\’s Day celebration at the Fort St.John North Peace Museum. The North Peace Spinners and Weavers Guild were there to show visitors the ancient art of spinning wool. I tried it out myself and let me tell you, it is quite labour intensive! You take the wool and wind it onto the drop spindle. Bit by bit, you stretch (draft) the unspun wool out and twist it as thin as possible. Then you wind it around your drop spindle and continue the process. When your piece of batting is finished you twist the end onto another piece of batting and continue the process of thinning it and twisting it. It took a bit of coordination to keep the unspun wool from getting tangled up into the newly spun wool. Needless to say my spun wool was full of lumps and bumps, and no one will be using it to knit or crochet. But it was actually a lot of fun to try. The ladies there were all very enthusiastic and patient teaching everyone. I was assured that for a first attempt I actually didn\’t do too badly.

Now for the history part. Spinning wool has been documented back to Egyptian times. It was one of the most important roles of women. Not only were clothes made from the wool and other fibers spun, but sails, aprons, hats and blankets as well. To spin enough for clothing would take weeks. Enough for a single sail could take months. This was a job that women of all classes did. It doesn\’t matter if your female ancestor came from a poor or wealthy family. She would have been spinning wool regardless.

The spinning wheel greatly reduced the time involved. Though no one is positive of the actual origin of the spinning wheel, some believe it was invented in India. It came to Europe in the middle ages when explorers brought it back with them from the Middle East. Even with a spinning wheel, it was still not a quick process. There were a few spinning wheels on display at the demonstration. One of them comes from Quebec, and I was told it dates back to the early 1800\’s.

St. Distaff\’s Day (January 7) was the day when women would resume this work after the twelve days of Christmas. It signaled a return to the normal everyday duties. There is actually no St. Distaff. The word distaff refers to the stick or spindle that holds the unspun wool. It gives the ability for the hand spinner to have what is essentially a third hand. Men would not resume work until the following Monday (called Plough Monday). Since men were still idle on St. Distaff\’s Day, it has been documented that they would play pranks on the women trying to resume the work of spinning. A favourite one was apparently to try and set fire to the piles of flax waiting to be spun!

Now for the trivia and genealogy connection. Today we have terms and phrases that seem to have no context in our modern world. Have you sometimes wondered where they come from? Because of the importance of spinning in our ancestor\’s lives pre industrial age, some of these words made it into popular language and are still used today:

  • Spinster: Because of the labour and time involved, the majority of spinning usually fell to girls and unmarried women. This is why we also see the term \”spinster\” on marriage documents. Even today the phrase is used, though it has developed into a more derogatory term to refer to an older woman who has never been married.
  • Distaff Side: Sometimes in the more scholarly genealogy writing, you will see a reference to the \”distaff side\” of a person\’s family lines. This is referring to what we now call the maternal line. 
Over the years, many occupations arose out of spinning and weaving. If your ancestor was listed in any of the occupations, they were involved in textiles in some way. This list also includes occupations from the industrial era in textiles. It was extracted from the site Hall Genealogy Site Old Occupation Names. This is in no way a complete list, it\’s just a sampling.
  • Alnager/Aulnager: The official who examined woolen goods and gave them a stamp of approval
  • Antigropelos Maker: A maker of waterproof leggings
  • Archil Maker: One who made purple dye from lichen, to be used in textiles
  • Back Tenter: Someone who worked behind the weaving looms, clearing out the debris by ducking under the big industrial looms. Because of their smaller size, this was a job mostly done by children.
  • Back Washer: The person who cleaned wool in the process for worsted wool (a higher quality wool yarn).
  • Bat Maker: Made the wadding used in quilts and mattresses
  • Bayweaver: Made baize. This is the fabric that today you would see on pool tables.
  • Beamer: The person who set up the yarn for looms
  • Cambric Maker: Made a fine linen fabric called Cambric
  • Carder: Combed the wool or cotton
  • Card Maker: Made the combs for carding wool
  • Card Nailer: Maintained the teeth on the carding machine
  • Cemmer: A person who hand combed yarn before weaving
  • Danter: Female overseer in a silk winding room
  • Delaine Weaver: Made a light wool cloth called Delaine
  • Deviller: Ran the machine that tore rags- a \”devil\”
  • Doffer: Replaced empty bobbins on the loom
  • Doubler: Twisted the yarn in mills
  • Fear- Naught Maker: made a thick woollen cloth that provided a protective layer 
  • Fettler: Cleaned the mill machinery
  • First Hand: Silk weaver who owned their own loom
  • Flax Dresser: The person who prepares the flax for the spinner
  • Flowering Muslin: Did embroidery
  • Gaunter: Glove Maker
  • Grey Cloth Dealer: Sold greycloth, which was the finished products of the looms before bleaching and dyeing
  • Hackler: Combed the flax before linen making
  • Hairweaver: Wove with horsehair
There are Guilds right across Canada that are keeping the tradition of spinning alive. Along with my local group, a quick google search gave me some others:

  • Camilla Valley Farm has an extensive list of Guilds from Canada, the U.S., the UK, Australia and New Zealand

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